By Stuart Grant with photography from Oliver Hirtenfelder
BMW’s international motorsport division has played and added more ‘go’ to almost every series of BMW car produced in the last 40 years. It started with the mid-engined M1, then came the likes of the M3, M5 and M6, but policy meant that the 7-Series never earned its M stripes. There was, however, a 7-Series that deserved the badge, it was South Africa’s very own E23 745i. BMW Germany launched a 745i in 1979 which derived its motion from a 3.2-litre (and later 3.4) six-cylinder fed by a Borg Warner K27 turbo. Like the 2002 Turbo it was only produced in left-hand drive because, when the steering column was on the right of the engine bay, there was not enough space to fit the turbocharger. Unperturbed, the South Africans applied the ‘maak ‘n plan’ mentality that had paid large dividends over the years, and slotted the BMW M1-derived 3453cc 286hp (213kW) twin-camshaft four-valve M88/3 unit under the hood.
And of course, like we always did, produced enough units (249) for homologation purposes to enter Group 1 and then Wesbank Modified racing. The sight of a massive saloon being muscled around the circuits by a bare-knuckled man who created the car, Tony Viana, remains entrenched in most motorsport fans’ grey matter.
Put together from CKD kits at the Rosslyn plant, the local 745i came in both ZF four-speed automatic and Getrag dogleg five-speed manual format, but the vast majority stayed true to the luxury saloon ethos with the automatic. Only 14 manuals, which included the two race cars, were made. At daily-drive speeds and acceleration the car is super quiet, but hoof it and even the biggest corporate heavy would get his hooligan face on as the motor got louder, reaching the peak power mark relatively high revs, thanks to the 264° camshafts and crossflow heads. Fed by Bosch ML-Jetronic fuel injection system, the 1 720kg behemoth was no slouch, galloping in manual guise from zero to 100km/h in 7.14 seconds. Alfa’s 3-litre GTV6 was said to have the highest top speed for a South African production car at the time at just under 225km/h, but the big Beemer stole the thunder when Car magazine recorded it at 235.6km/h.
Suspension was stiffer than the European 7s, and thanks to a 25% limited-slip differential the power delivery through the 16-inch BBS Mahle alloy wheels in the twisty bits was efficient. Stopping was handled by vented discs with four-pot callipers at the front while the rear got single-piston units squeezing down on solid rear discs. Super fancy for the day was the addition of ABS.
From the outside only the discreet 745i boot badge and 16-inch alloys really differentiated the monster from BMW’s lesser-engined 7-Series offerings. Inside the cabin, however, it differed dramatically but not - other than gauges sporting a small motorsport M and marked to 260km/h - with any go-faster accessories, rather touches of high-end class. Locally sourced hand-stitched leather was used in almost every conceivable part of the business class lounge, ranging from the seats, pillar trim, handbrake handle, gear knob, centre console to even the dash. All the bells and whistles were at hand so the buyer with the bulging bank balance got everything from electric seats with memory function, electric windows and aircon, to onboard computer giving stats like average speed, ambient temperature, fuel range and fuel consumption. Last on that list rings a big bell with today’s petrol price. The 745i held 100 litres of juice but believe it or not, was reasonably economical when not being stomped thanks to its engine’s flexibility and gear ratios suited to South African conditions that gave it the ability to trundle along at normal speed with very little effort and revs. At 60km/h the drinking number came in at around 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres and just over 11 at 120km/h.
A silky smooth and docile daily driver with class-leading luxury and when the loud pedal was plonked, a seriously multiple-personality sort of performance car. This dual personality didn’t come cheap though, with the 745i costing R73 550 in 1984. That was R20 000 more than its smaller-capacity 735i stable mate, R5 000 more than the awesome 635CSi and R1 000 more than a Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. By the time production came to an end in 1987, the price had increased to a whopping R125 410.Despite the hefty price tag BMW South Africa, with perhaps a bit of arm-twisting from Welkom’s Tony Viana, was not shy to take the executive saloon racing. Both the Group 1 and WesBank Modified cars were actually 745i models and not shells borrowed from the cheaper siblings. In fact, of the claimed manuals made by BMW, the two race cars are counted as production statistics. Viana originally campaigned the Group 1 745i in the Gunston colours, but the car really shot to fame when it took on the Winfield branding in 1985. Viana went door-to-door as the lone BMW against the Ford XR8s and 3.0-litre GTV Alfas in the top-class battle of the South African homologation specials, and wrapped up the title becoming not only the first 7-Series in the world to race, but also to be crowned a champ.
While the Group 1 car was similar to the road-going versions, the Modified car of 1986 and ’87 was not much more than a 745i shell and silhouette. As the name suggests, the formula catered for plenty of modifying and Viana applied his years of track experience to get the best out of the big machine. Out came the standard brakes and in went some bigger discs made from exotic Geralium, and callipers to help lighten the mass and get rid of heat faster. Lighter and stronger but featuring a shorter life-span, suspension struts, again made from Geralium, found a home and the engine got tweaked with an M1 crankshaft and damper, special con-rods, pistons, head, cam box, flywheel and more, obviously to increase the grunt and see the rev limit increase from the 6800rpm of the road car to 8900rpm when battling on track. The amount of money thrown into making the Modified 745i competitive showed the seriousness at which racing was taken: an off-the-shelf 745i brake disc cost R1 500 at the time and the modded version R6 000, while the struts rang up at R2 500 for your road car and R30 000 for Viana.
With the introduction of the E28 M5 to the South African market it made sense to put the hulking great 745i into retirement at the end of ’87 and build up a lighter but equally trick M5 for Modified racing, which Viana of course did. Both the Group 1 and Modified 745i racers survive today restored and back on track. Road-going 745i BMWs, like so many classics, went through a dip in value a few years back with many people simply regarding them as big old thirsty cars, but that has all changed now and collectors are snapping them up. If you have one to pull the caravan very quickly then I’d think about buying a double-cab bakkie, retiring the executive saloon to a weekend car and giving it the package it deserves as a true South African classic.
Great article, thank you.